Last Updated 03/15/2006

Using the Apple Newton with Global Positioning Satellites (GPS)

Recent interest on the NewtonTalk email list has focused on the use of GPS technology with the (now discontinued) Apple Newton series of PDAs. As most Newton users probably aren't all that familiar with options available to them, I decided to create this simple webpage to aid them.


Why Use a Newton?

Well, chances are, if you're reading this you haven't yet given up on the Newt. However, a quick look at the competition is needed so you can make an educated decision about how to spend your money, and if the Newton is the right tool for your task. It is important to realize that the Apple Newton was not originally designed to be used as a GPS system, a rugged data collector, or a navigational tool. Companies such as Digital Ocean (SeaHorse and Tarpon) and Harris (SuperTech 2000), manufactured Newton-clone devices to serve this purpose. In the years since the demise of the Newton, use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) have skyrocketed. Most handheld GPS systems function as a miniature database and data-collection device right out of the box. Commercial products (like those of Magellan and Garmin) allow you to create and store 'waypoints' with associated notes. These products will then direct you to that waypoint when you would like to return. This system is excellent for getting back to your favorite fishing spot, a beautiful scenic overlook, or even back home if you happen to get lost. Most commercial GPS systems now offer ways to load topographic maps, and even aerial photographs, as backgrounds on a moving display. If all you really want is a method of finding your way back to a visited location, getting a handheld GPS unit may be your best option.

But what happens when you want to collect complex types of data, with many different options and choices? Waypoints often are not the best choice in these instances. Instead, you may need a data collection device that can communicate with a desktop computer, database, or even a GIS software system. This is function that the Newton, as well as other PDA devices and specially manufactured computers, does extremely well. So why use a Newton, instead of other more modern devices? Many modern PDAs, including the Compaq iPaq, are being marketed as GPS-savvy solutions for busness executives and people on the go. GPS-manufacturers such as Trimble, make rugged data collectors with GPS receivers built in. Panasonic even makes a military grade laptop and PDA for those people who work in very rough environments! So why use technology that is discontinued?

The Newton, unlike modern devices using Windows CE and PocketPC, was built from the beginning to be a single, integrated device. The hardware, software, and data on a Newton, all function together. Many of the programs on a Newton are able to share data with each other, similar to a relational database. Another reason you may want to consider when looking into GPS data collection is screen space. The Newton, unlike Compaq's iPaq, has a large screen that allows you to write anywhere on it. If you're collecting many classes of data, this may be important to you. Handwriting recognition is another factor in choosing th right platform for your task. The Newton's handwriting recognition has long been considered to be the best available. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Apple, never having sold the technology, recently incorporated the 5-year old Newton handwriting system into their "next-generation" operating system OS X. Unlike Graffitti-based Palm devices, the Newton allows you to write in your own handwriting, without having to learn special characters to input. Over time, the Newton learns your handwriting, and usually within a few weeks it understands almost all of what you're writing. Of course, for most people, the most important aspect to using a data collection device is the cost. As one may expect, the newest technology often has the highest price tag. Sure, Trimble makes the GeoXT, the Recon, and other data collectors. Palm and Compaq make some great PDAs as well. But if you're on a budget, or you are just very frugal, the high price tags for these new items may force you to look elsewhere. Most Newton PDAs sell for 75-200$ US on eBay, or from a resellers throughout the world. Check out the prices for yourself, and see if the Newton may be the right product for you.


Who Has Used The Newton With A GPS?

The Newton has a successful history of use with GPS receivers and data collection. Many of the institutions that used Newtons had incredible foresight, and realized that this little green/black box was the product of the future. While a complete listing of all the institutions who have used the Newton as a data collection device will probably never exist, a few highlights include:

If you know of another industry or organization that has used the Newton as part of a fieldwork or data collection program, and you would like to have it listed, please feel free to contact me about it.


Units and Requirements

So, you want to try connecting your Newton to your GPS reciever? Well, there's a few things you may need to know. Most GPS units will allow you to transmit the satellite data through an optional cord. If your GPS unit does not support data output, you may be out of luck. If your GPS unit does allow you to transmit data, you will need to have software on your Newton that understands that data. Most GPS units will transmit their data in NMEA format, probably the most common format for GPS data at the commercial level. Fortunately, most GPS software available for the Newton will understand NMEA formatted data. Other data formats such as Trimble's proprietary format TSIP are understood by some software packages, but not all.

So, if your GPS unit can transmit its data, and you have software for the Newton that is able to understand GPS output, all you really need is a cable to connect the two. I recommend visiting the GPSY website for an excellent instruction on how to either manufacture your own GPS -> Newton cable, or where to find one for sale.


Newton GPS and GIS Software

A number of GPS software packages have been developed over time. Many of them are discontinued, some of them are available as shareware, some have been abandoned, and others have been publicly released and are available for free. As I am not a software distributer, I cannot provide any of this software to you, nor can I offer technical support for it. If you have questions concerning the operation or availability of the software, I recommend submitting a posting to the NewtonTalk email list. The list is an active community of loyal Newton users who have a great deal of experience with many of these software packages.

Data Collection

GPS Navigation

As stated above, most handheld commercial GPS units will keep track of waypoints and allow you to view roadmaps, topographic maps, and even aerial photographs. However, if you're still interested in connecting that device to your Newton, these packages will allow you to use the Newton as a navigational device.

Other Software

Lets face it, sometimes you may want to use your handheld GPS unit for navigation, and your Newton for data collection, and you're not terribly interested in letting these two pieces of hardware fraternize. Other Newton packages that may be of use to you include the following:


General Links

Lets face it, this page is not a comprehensive description of either the Newton or GPS and GIS applications. The following links will help to provide you with more information on these subjects.

Newton Software

Newton Hardware

GPS Information



All Information on this Page is Intended for Informational Use Only
Last Update:March 15, 2006